I would like to share some stories on this Memorial Day weekend of service members who never returned from the ocean’s depth. There have been so many over the decades that it makes it impossible to grasp the sacrifice they made and an ocean more than willing to oblige.
I lost a shipmate to the Red Sea to a horrific H-2 Seasprite helicopter mishap that was no fault of the pilots. In May of 1983, while transiting through the Red Sea to the Indian Ocean, our crew of three practiced night landings on the flight deck of the USS Trippe. During one landing, our right-side landing gear retracted into its cowling (an aeronautical term for the wheel well), and the helicopter quickly rolled to the right.
The fast-moving main rotor blades hit the hard steel of the flight deck, where they disintegrated and flew off in all directions, threatening to find our crew inside the helicopter at nearly the speed of sound. They did locate a member of our maintenance crew who was on the landing deck, hitting him in the thigh like a shotgun. After a medevac to the USS Kidd and operation onboard to remove the bits of the rotor blades, he did recover.
Our helicopter slid down the side of the ship and hit the ocean upside down in darkness. The warm water of the Red Sea rapidly flowed in. It was dark, and I couldn’t see and became disoriented. In the hello dunker, a training simulator that the Navy utilizes to train helicopter crews for crashes at sea, they teach you to remain strapped into your seat until all motion has stopped. In my desire to get out of our sinking helicopter, I unstrapped early and was immediately swept to the back of the cabin by the incoming water as the aircraft went down. I felt my hands on the crash curtain that covered the entrance to the tail section of the airframe. I knew I was in trouble, running out of air and near panic.
At that time, somehow a light came on, and like a swimming pool light, it illuminated the entire cabin. I saw the dark void of the cabin door and swam for it. When I was clear of the fuselage, I inflated my life preserver with a CO2 cartridge. It seemed to take an eternity to reach the surface. When I did, Lt. Cmdr. Chuck Taylor, one of our pilots, was calling out to us. Tragically, Lt. Dwight Greer was never found. I think about him every day.
Unlike a sinking aircraft or surface ship where one could imagine a chance to escape, submarines rarely afford that hope. The U.S. Navy’s submarine service experienced its highest number of fatalities during World War II when one in five submarines were sunk. All told, nearly 3,500 sailors lost their lives. The fate of some of these lost boats remains a mystery to this day and most likely for eternity.
The last time our country suffered a loss of a submarine was in 1968, when the USS Scorpion with 99 souls on board sunk about 400 nautical miles southwest of the Azores in the Atlantic Ocean in about 10,000 feet of water. The U.S. Navy’s worst single submarine disaster concerning lives lost occurred five years earlier, on April 10, 1963, when the USS Thresher sank during deep-diving trials with 129 souls on board.
During these deep-diving tests, which occurred about 200 miles east of Boston, it’s hypothesized that a possible cause of the accident was the failure of a joint in the seawater piping as Thresher neared its test depth at around 1,000 feet. This allowed high-pressure seawater spray to short out the electrical equipment and cause an emergency shutdown of the submarine’s reactor. However, this hypothesis remains controversial. What is known is that, without propulsion, the submarine continued to head toward the ocean floor.
Sound analysis from underwater hydrophone arrays that were deployed throughout the Atlantic during the Cold War and communications with the Skylark — a submarine rescue ship that accompanied the Thresher during the trials — showed the submarine tried to blow its ballast to reach the surface. It was unable to because of ice formations in the ballast system.
Consequently, Thresher continued its downward course. When the submarine reached 2,400 feet of depth, it imploded in less than a 10th of a second, too short of a time frame for human perception. The predicted “collapse” depth of the submarine was 1,950 feet. It’s been estimated that water and steel hit the crew with a velocity of 2,600 mph. The ocean pressure at that depth is 1,069 pounds per square inch of the submarine’s hull. The remains of Thresher and its crew came to rest on the ocean floor at 8,400 feet.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect and admiration for our Navy’s submariners. There are meaningful Memorial Day observances planned throughout the county Monday. One is the Lost at Sea Memorial at the Cayucos Pier.
We gather at the base of the pier at 3 p.m. for a brief service and walk together out over the Pacific and remember those who never returned.
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California’s Division of Boating and Waterways and PG&E encourage water enthusiasts to take extra precautions this spring when in or near rivers. These relatively full waterways will continue to rise as snow melts and will be dangerously cold. Simple actions such as knowing the water (is it too cold or swift), knowing your limits, wearing a life jacket or not entering the water when conditions are deemed unsafe can save a life.